Questioning reality in AWT’s Back to Beulah

The tables turn when the doctor is questioned. (Emily-May Photo)

The tables turn when the doctor is questioned. (Emily-May Photo)

TRU’s very own Actors Workshop Theatre (AWT) kicked off their 2015-16 season last week with the opening of “Back to Beulah,” directed by Robin Nichol. The play, written by Canadian playwright W.O. Mitchell, follows the lives of three mental patients and their doctor, all of whom have moved out of the mental institution (Beulah) and into a halfway house.

Harriet, Betty and Agnes (Maddison Hartloff, Jessica Buchanan and Selena Tobin) live downstairs, and their doctor, Dr. Margaret Anders (Morgan Benedict) frequently visits the three women from her room on the ground floor. The action of the play focuses on the three patients and how they go about their daily lives, always wary of something they might do or say that could be the reason they are sent back to Beulah.

The play begins innocently enough, with the characters getting themselves ready to enjoy the upcoming holidays, but audience members are quickly enlightened to the play’s overlying theme: who defines sanity and reality? When things in the halfway house take a turn for the worse, the audience is forced to decide what is right and what is wrong; what is real and what isn’t. The play is an emotional one, and the actors all do an excellent job of clearly delivering their lines with passion. If I may forewarn those planning on seeing this play, be ready for a lot of swearing and a lot of screaming.

TRU’s Black Box Theatre is not a large space, but the AWT construction crew was able to make it appear larger than it is with their set’s high walls (suggesting a high ceiling) and breakaway walls that open the space up even more. The stage has two acting areas: the interior of the halfway house and its exterior, which include the stairs leading up to Dr. Anders’ room and the boiler that Joe (Daniel Moen) works on at the beginning of the play. Even though the wall separating the two areas is cut away, audience members seated to the far left might have a difficult time seeing into the “exterior” space. Furthermore, visibility is very limited in the kitchen of the halfway house. This room is closed off from the main acting area by cupboards that have a pass-through between the two rooms, but the overhead cupboards are positioned directly at head level for the actors, and it is difficult to see or hear any action taking place behind them.

Even though visibility is an issue, it is not extremely difficult to follow the action of the play. The excellent casting allows the characters’ personalities to really shine through, and I was able to sympathise with them throughout the entirety of the show. This is not a play one can simply walk away from: it invites conversation and contemplation, even after leaving the theatre, everyone walks away considering “aren’t we all a little mad sometimes?”

Back to Beulah runs Oct. 15 to 17, with doors opening at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are available at the box office in Old Main (next to Starbucks) or online at Tickets are $14 each, or you can get a season ticket to all four shows for $40. Be sure to catch AWT’s upcoming productions, Mail Order Bride at the end of November, The Love of the Nightingale at the end of February and their 17th annual Directors Festival at the beginning of April.